To combat the spread of COVID-19, Cebu City, the Philippines most urbanised metropolis after Manila, has been placed under strict community quarantine. The lockdown has left the most vulnerable communities struggling for food – community-led volunteers are leading efforts to help.
The province of Cebu entered extended Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ) on March 28th. The quarantine, enforced by the military, forbids the operation of all services, non-essential businesses and public-transportation. All Filipino citizens have been ordered to stay at home, which has put incredible stresses on local government to ensure the most vulnerable can stay in food security.
FundLife, a local NGO focused on experiential education for vulnerable children, has responded by raising awareness and leading food relief operations. Using their existing network of community volunteers, FundLife have been able to support vulnerable families from several barangays (townships).
FundLife and its local partner, Bayanihan Mission have been supporting is Sitio Marna – an informal settlement located meters away one of the Cebu City’s several ‘Mega Malls’ offering American-style shopping and entertainment to the cities growing middle class. Many of its residents depend on the informal economy to endure and survive, earning not more than the daily minimum wage of PHP 360 (USD 7.7).
Janice lives in Sitio Marna with her eight (8) children and husband. The thought of social distancing to prevent COVID-19 disease couldn’t be further from her mind. “We have 8 children to feed between the ages of 5 months to 14 years old and we are living in one room.” My husband is a security guard but has been unable to work since ECQ began about 5 weeks ago”, says Janice.
(Janice, husband and children feel fortunate that they are all together)
Figures from 2018 suggest that as many as 38% (15.6 Million) of the Philippines labour force are informal workers. This usually means they receive no social protection and typically are employed under ‘No Work, No Pay’ contracts, receiving daily or weekly wages.
The lockdown has put incredible strain on these daily wage earners and informal workers. Although Government figures suggest a reduction of poverty 26.3% in the first half of 2015 to 21% in the first half of 2018, this number is still much higher than its neighbours across Asia. It also does not include informal workers who work for less than USD 5 a day and the street-children who populate slums of Metro Manila doing what they can to survive.
Responding to the nationwide lockdown, Local governments are overwhelmed and under resourced in trying to reach the 100 million that make up the archipelago of the Philippine islands. “In 5 weeks, we have only received 5kg of rice from our Barangay and we don’t have any butane fuel left to cook with”
In fact, the first help Janice and her family received was by a volunteer-led community group called ‘Bayanihan Mission’ (Community Mission). The group was set-up by frustrated doctors who felt uncomfortable that the whole country was coming together to fundraise for doctors PPE, but not for the thousands of families who did not have food. Bayanihan Mission has since mobilised over 300 volunteers all over the country, including Cebu City. When a young Sitio Marna resident saw their Facebook page, he sent them a message requesting help.
Within two days, they mobilised food packs for 275 families and through volunteers delivered the packs. They also distributed education leaflets and sent a doctor to assess the community to put in place a social contract where the community would agree to protect each other.
(Young families gather for a volunteer-led food distribution in Cebu City)
Families similar to Janice are struggling the hardest. “My baby has not had milk in 3 weeks. I don't have the means to feed my family and my husband cannot go out to earn. What will happen to us if COVID-19 comes to this community? We are scared for our children and do not know what to do or what will happen tomorrow.”
The impact of COVID-19 on global travel has made it almost impossible for INGOs to respond – it has also immobilised rigid and centralised systems that needed to be nimble to meet the constantly evolving situation on the ground.
(Food packs being hand out)
The problem is not a lack of resources – the problem is getting resources to the ground. Cebu City has over 40 registered local NGOs and countless more informal community groups. As the organisations are completely removed from existing humanitarian aid networks, they are forced to go it alone. Often working without pay and getting funding from private donors or local business leaders.
FundLife is an NGO that is trying to connect these grassroots groups to humanitarian aid. Having been a former UNICEF partner, it has the capacity to bridge the gap, but even they have found it difficult to make progress.
“The labyrinth of international development and humanitarian aid is so vast we simply cannot connect with the right person or agency. Our entire organisation has four people, and we are required to fundraise, deliver operations, do our own media, and try to engage the UN – it’s simply impossible, says Marko Kasic, FundLife Founder, who is in Cebu leading the organisation’s efforts.
As of late April, FundLife and Bayanhian Mission had reached over 1,500 families across Cebu and committed to sponsoring food packs for the 2,100 people from Sitio Marma until the May 15th.
The bigger question of who will support other barangays like Sitio Marma, who did not see a Facebook page and are engaged in their own food emergency, while trying to remain safe from COVID-19. FundLife and its partners estimate that there are a further 40,000 vulnerable people in immediate need of food assistance across Cebu City and neighbouring Mandaue and Lapu-Lapu.